Perhaps the most famous story of siblings in any literature is at the very beginning of Genesis. During the course of a mere three chapters, the world is created. Male and female are created and then expelled from Paradise. By the fourth chapter male knows female. The result: two sons are born in quick succession and so too is the first case of sibling rivalry, and soon, of murder. This first case, I would concede, is rather extreme. But its cause turns out to be the norm in Genesis. Favoritism is the culprit. But neither parent is implicated. It is none other than God who plays favorites:
Cain [the first-born] brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to YHWH. And Abel, he too brought from the first born of his flock, from their fat-parts. And YHWH had regard for Abel and his offering. But for Cain and his offering He did not have regard …
God’s attitude is best described as unapologetically matter of fact.
When Cain lets his disappointment and anger show, God responds rather enigmatically:
Why are you angry and why is your face fallen? If you intend good, bear it aloft, but if you do not intend good … sin crouches at the door and it desires you — but you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)
God’s initial perplexity suggests that preferences are inherent in relationships, divine or otherwise. God’s next words go directly to the core of the matter: take charge of those emotions. Overcome them. If not, they will master you and trigger behavior that you will regret. According to Genesis, favoritism is not the problem, but rather, one’s response to favoritism. The sooner Cain masters his injured feelings, the better off he will be. But Cain does not heed God’s warning. He responds by murdering his brother.
Coming so soon after the opening events of Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel introduces a preoccupation with siblings and the threat of violence between brothers that is borne out by the rest of the book. In fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that the story of siblings is the story of Genesis, and favoritism plays a role in each tale. (This includes sisters, as suggested by Amy Kalmanofsky of the Jewish Theological Seminary).
But if favoritism is unapologetically accepted as part of the fabric of family life, it is not necessarily seen as wholly positive. On one hand the preference of God for the second-born over the elder in the biblical stories functions to reassure a fledgling people, surviving between the mighty empires who predate the children of Israel. Furthermore, choosing the second over his older brother overturns laws of primogeniture that protect the rights of the first-born to inherit his father’s wealth and property, thus highlighting the biblical insistence on transforming the accepted norms and rules of the ancient world on behalf of something radically new and different. But at the same time the biblical writer in Genesis does not flinch from depicting the absolute ravages of this new experiment within Abraham’s family. Favoritism is a problem, its consequences devastating for everyone involved. As is often the case in the Bible, at their core these marvelous stories contain a stunning self-critique. The stories subvert their own aims because they are psychologically astute, conjuring up and describing human beings, not abstract principles: brothers who must live out the demands placed upon them by a sometimes inscrutable God or parent. Repeatedly we encounter the suffering of the one passed over — not only in Abel’s murder, but in Ishmael’s banishment, Esau’s cry and Joseph’s abandonment.
Thus these stories also seek to redress the consequent sufferings. For instance in Genesis 33, Esau overcomes his own anger and movingly embraces his brother Jacob after long years of separation. But it is in the story of Joseph and his brothers, the last in Genesis, that the damages produced by favoritism are overcome in the greatest detail and with the greatest psychological acuity. In his 1981 book, “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” Robert Alter elegantly illustrates the artistry found in Joseph’s story. My own reading is influenced by this now classic work.
Joseph is a teller of tales and apparently a braggart who nonetheless remains his father’s favorite. His brothers detest him. One day his father sends him to seek them out, alone. His appearance at a distance sparks mutterings of murder. The fourth brother, Judah, suggests that they profit from Joseph’s life rather than kill him, and sell him to merchants heading down to Egypt. After agreeing to this plan, the brothers reveal their callousness and indifference toward Joseph by sitting down to a meal while he languishes nearby in a pit. They convince their father that Joseph has been torn to pieces.
The part of the story most pertinent to this essay comes near its end. Threatened by famine, the brothers seek food in Egypt where they encounter, though do not recognize, Joseph — alive, powerful and wealthy. They on the other hand are hungry, fearful and vulnerable. Their situation in life has been reversed. From this point on, the plot revolves around a basic truth found in many biblical stories: measure for measure, what goes around comes around.
Abraham places his wife Hagar in a position to witness the near death of his son Ishmael only to receive God’s command the next day to sacrifice his second son, Isaac. Jacob resorts to cunning and deception only to be exploited and deceived in turn. After callously getting rid of Joseph, the brothers will now experience his seeming callousness and indifference to their fate.
The turning point arrives when Joseph brings false charges against Benjamin, his youngest brother. Judah steps forward to explain to the Egyptian that their father is deeply attached to Benjamin and terrified that he would come to harm.
And so, should I come to your servant, my father, and the lad is not with us, for his life is bound to his, when he sees the lad is not, he would die, and your servants would bring down the gray head of your servant, our father, in grief to Sheol … let your servant, pray, stay instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad is not with me? Let me see not the evil that would overtake my father!”
Alter characterizes Judah’s speech as nothing less than:
a point-for-point undoing, morally and psychologically, of the brothers’ earlier violation of filial and fraternal bonds … love is unpredictable, arbitrary, at times perhaps seemingly unjust, and Judah now comes to an acceptance of that fact with all its consequences … Twenty-two years earlier Judah engineered the selling of Joseph into slavery; now he is prepared to offer himself as a slave … he is willing to do anything in order not to have to see his father suffer that way again. (“The Art of Biblical Narrative,” 174-175.)
Judah has exhibited nothing less than a complete reversal of calculation and self-interest and a complete change of heart. He has come to recognize the extent of his wrongdoing. In response, Joseph is willing to reveal his identity and resume his place among his brothers.
The tale of Joseph and his brothers, which ends the book of Genesis, literally appears at a great remove from that of the murderous and jealous Cain with which Genesis begins. A profound acceptance of inequity and preference leads by book’s end to reconciliation. Only after Joseph and his brothers have learned to make peace within their family can their descendants hope to unify themselves as the people of Israel.
Yet the paradox remains. The favored younger sibling bears a great reward and an equally great burden. He is blessed. But he is also threatened — repeatedly forced to face the fierce jealousy and violence of his brother. This ancient text exposes the fissures and cracks inherent in the experimental attempt to favor the second son over his elder. As we have seen, God’s preference ends up causing such damage that it might better be put aside.
A later biblical writer does just that. There is a fascinating afterlife to these stories in Deuteronomy that serves as a last word on the favoritism found in Genesis:
If a man has two wives, one loved and the one hated, and both the loved and the hated have borne him sons, but the first-born is the son of the hated — on the day when he wills what he has to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the hated one who is older.
Instead he must recognize the first-born, the son of the hated, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses; since he is the first fruit of his vigor, the birthright is his due. (Deuteronomy 21: 15-17)
Perhaps that is the final biblical judgment on God’s preference for Abel’s offering over that of his older brother Cain.
Adriane Leveen joined the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2007 after teaching at Stanford University. This essay is excerpted from a talk given at a conference of The Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine and The Society of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.
Translations are the author’s, except for occasional wording borrowed from Robert Alter’s “The Five Books of Moses” (W.W. Norton, 2004) or Everett Fox’s, “The Five Books of Moses” (Schocken Books, 1995).